Skip to main content


Mongol Warrior after war
The Roman Church branded them as the angels of the apocalypse. They were depicted as brutal, flesh eating and greedy. This was the dark ages, and folklore was more accepted than facts. It is noted that some of the worst wartime atrocities with estimates of up-to 80 million dead were committed as the Mongol conquered the known world in the 13th and 14th century.

At their zenith they ruled an area extending from the Sea of Japan to the East, to Central Europe to the West, from Siberia in the north to the Indian subcontinent in the south. It is still considered the largest contiguous land empire in history; six times the size of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Empire.

The Mongol empire ruled for a strikingly short time span, but their mark is evident in today society, from trade, to culture, art, to military strategy their contribution is extensive.

The Mongol empire has more to offer today’s businesses than was previously assumed. Whether you are running a start up, bootstrapping and fighting to come by some financial injection, a stable organization about to transition into your best years, or are declining into oblivion there are lessons you can learn from this empire.

1.    Your strength lies in less

The Mongols are a very hardy people. For centuries before the empire became, their story was the same, they were nomadic, moving from place to place, depending on their animals, and at the mercy of treacherous weather patterns. Heavy snow, ice and droughts were common, harsh winters of -30°C constantly decimated their livestock. Due to constant travel necessitated by the need to survive they only possessed the bare essentials and lived in tents.  
Steve Jobs and Wozniak - 1977
Their situation was further exasperated by the trade disputes they had with their neighbors the Jin and Xia Dynasty to the South East, who were wealthy empires that refused to trade with the Mongols for desperately needed goods

 Respect the early days of your business. Learn to survive and flourish based on your adversity; you might not be forced naturally to do this, but critical lessons are learnt at this period. Learn to ask questions like why your business exists and what value your business ultimately brings to society.

There is a reason why the Silicon Valley mantra of “fail fast and try again” exists. And it stands far apart from bringing value to society.

There is a reason why Vmware makes profit while Twitter, Groupon and Zynga barely do so in comparison to their valuation.

We live in an age where bootstrapping is lauded and sensationalized. An ecosystem has blossomed around the world of venture capitalists who are willing to fund even half witted ideas from a large global pool of technologists who have received sufficient dozes of inspiration from the success stories of companies like airbnb and Whatsup. The fanatical “me too” romantic notion of this aspiration can be misconstrued and the wisdom of the difficult early days lost as many people commit Kamikaze like acts, in aiming to emulate the success of the few. It’s only after wasting first and second round of financing in propping up a dead entity that it becomes apparent that some companies were really never meant to be. An interesting piece on this here

Remember that 3 out of 4 businesses that start in Silicon Valley fail within the first 30 months.  It is no wonder that there is even a Failcon  conference that focuses on failures.

2.    Study industry strengths and weakness, design for success

The Mongols fully studied the power and weaknesses of their neighbors and realized that aristocracy was their Achilles heel. Far ahead of anything else most of the surrounding empires at that time were ruled by aristocrats who wanted to retain their empires at the detriment of the masses, corruption was a byword in the Chinese empires.  The size of armies was based on wealth and influence and not on order and discipline.

To counter this Genghis Khan, first of all instituted a principle where meritocracy was king. One rose through the ranks because they showed exemplary ability in the field, rather than how well one knew or had a blood relation to the leader. He then set about bringing structure among the ranks. He did this by having leaders of groups of 10, 100, 1000 and 10,000. The leaders of these groups were chosen based on ability in the field.

Make sure you have the right structures in your organization from very early on. Build to disrupt not to conform. It might be easy in the beginning to hire people who simply buy into your vision but the earliest you can, get people who merit their position. Reward results rather than cronyism. Read Economist piece here

3.    Have grand aspirations and a clear blue strategy

Genghis was a brilliant military commander who from a young age struggled to revenge his father; once this was achieved revenge was translated into a passion for conquest. Without his character the Mongol empire would not have grown beyond its domestic realm. Deep down Genghis wanted to be termed as a supreme leader, a master of no equal.

Be aware of and use your talents and abilities. You possess talents that can allow you to achieve the aspirations that you have for your business. Be relentless and don’t short change yourself with short-term aspirations of being just a billionaire. Despite being courted a number of times, to sell their businesses the founders of Facebook  and Google understood their vision and had grand aspirations. It is only by sheer resilience that they stood their ground and didn’t sell off their companies, they are now some of the wealthiest people in the world. Please have lofty aspirations that include something more than dollar signs next to your name, it will probably change the world we live in.
Remember to have a blue ocean strategy that sets you apart not a red bloodied one. Find clarity of vision first, and then pursue it with all your energy. Which takes us to the next lesson

4.    Oneness in vision

Genghis knew that victory was meaningless without establishing a sense of nationhood so he had to fight and unite all the warring Mongol tribes under a single structure. He then set about establishing a formidable army using the national sport the nerge (traditional hunt) as an exercise to distill discipline and skill. His aim was to make the troops learn to think as part of a larger entity. Only showing their individual abilities when they were required to. It took him close to 4 years to have the army he desired. But by the end of that period discipline, order and structure was what Genghis army had.

Invest time to bring your business into one living, breathing organism, where every person works as part of the whole team .  It takes time, effort, practice and play together to get there. Merit and ability should be essential at critical moments, but teamwork should be supreme, and a culture of thinking as one should be fundamental.

5.    Create a formidable enemy
Geghis realized early that to maintain supremacy at home he had to have success abroad.

Leaving your ‘troops’ without a formidable enemy to conquer is a recipe for descent, conflict and departure.
Learn to train, mentor, give direction and then send your people out to achieve the seemingly impossible. 
In the battle with the Chinese empires the Mongolians were greatly outnumbered, but because they had become one in mind and focus they overcame their numerous and disorganized enemies.

6.    The power of one

A Mongol soldier was highly resourceful, he was supposed to manage 4 horses, a shield, 2 bows, 60 arrows, a lance, cooking pots, a sharpening tool, a needle and a thread, including his daily ration. He was supposed to be ready to move for distances of hundreds of miles within minutes of warning.

Hire the people who have the DNA of your aspirations, who have in them the ability to do the length and breath of what you want to achieve. Remember Genghis soldiers were hardy nomads, who moved around all their lives, with little luxury. What they were doing was explicably part of their culture and nature. You may not necessarily find the right people for your organization from the Ivy League schools, but know what is the underlying DNA you require to make your business a success.      

7.    Respect and embrace, tolerate and allow for diversity

It is widely known that their foray into warfare outside their region, the Mongol warriors decimated what they did not understand. But they were quick to learn, partly due to their visionary leaders, who understood that the foundation of a great empire lay in the skills that they found in conquered empires. Due to this, forced migrations were initiated for skilled people found in the Persian and Chinese empires they conquered. The most valued people were metal workers. These would later build the ramp and siege works the Mongol used to attack Westerly Islamic and European strongholds and fortifications.
Cast your net far and wide for talent, some of the best people to build your business may actually be in places unknown and unappreciated doing “insignificant” work.

One of the things that the Mongol Khans knew about was tolerance and the need to accept diversity for economic and cultural prosperity. Unlike the Europe of the dark ages which was intolerant and steeped in mythology and illiteracy. The Mongol empire was literate and religiously tolerant.

Learn to embrace diversity it is by inviting and creating a conducive environment for a cross section of people to interact that ideas flourish and prosperity is realized.

8.    Learn to change and adapt

The conquest of China was different due to the outlay of the land, which was either densely forested or covered by paddy fields. And thus horses, a principal mode of transport for the Mongols could not be used. The war would take years instead of months. To achieve conquest, Kublai Khan decided to adopt the Confucian practices, gab and behaviors of the Chinese. He essentially became Chinese. He then invested heavily in trade, art and science and included the Chinese in his army.

While it is a sound lesson to change and adopt, ensure that you are always clear on what benefits this will accrue and understand the merits and demerits. Not just in the short term but in the long term. Remember not all change is good, some change can elevate and some can destroy. Chose wisely and strategically, and not through a knee jack reaction to what is happening around you. I would go with Warren Buffett’s sagely approach rather than Raj Rajaratnam quick and ‘calculated’.    

9.    Clarity of vision through the ranks 

The first major defeat that the Mongol army faced was due to the large Chinese contingent they had in their army in their war with the Japan Empire. Due to the stratification in army (the Mongols were at the top and the southern Chinese at the bottom ranks) a majority of the people who went to war with the Japanese was the southern Chinese who were uninspired and did not identify with the aspirations of the Khan. Twice they were rebuffed and in the end 80,000 people died and this signaled the decline of this great empire

Remember even as you are growing and achieving great success, take time to sell your vision to the least and to the greatest of your employees.

Remember that merit should determine progress in your business. No one should feel like they have stagnated because there is some form of stratification in your organization’s rank and file.  

10. Do not do what those you ‘conquered’ did before you

During his best years, Kublai Khan build a Confucian style city, splendid, bedecked with beauty, rectangular and awe aspiring. In the city he built cities within cities that essentially isolated the people from the center of power. He then realized that to populate this great city he had to attract the aristocracy, he thus set about making it a city of culture, as a patron of the arts and so began a shadowy dive into an aristocratic lifestyle that took him away from his constituents and the proper governance of his empire.

The head stopped knowing what the toe was doing. Poverty ravished different enclaves in his empire and rebellion brewed.

Stay hungry, stay foolish , never perceive you have arrived at the big boys party. Stay humble. That is the price you have to pay to stay relevant for eons to come.    

Finally train others in the wake of your departure, no one entity lasts forever, but a philosophy can outlast generations.


Popular posts from this blog

Lessons From a Funeral

A couple of weeks ago, I visited a church. My bike rider kept going further down a dusty path with nothing more than white chalk to direct us along. The noise of the poorly fueled motorcycle kept me focused on an important topic: death. I believed we were lost and surfaced from my trance. "I think I'm going to that church." "Which one?" "That one," An attempt to have a conversation since there was nothing else for miles around except banana trees and maize fields. "The one with the large cross at the top." I entertained my new friend, my inner eyes-rolling. "Woah, that cross is big, bro," I nodded in agreement. We had become fast friends, him sharing his life in intimate detail in the thirty minutes it took to get there. The cross grew more prominent as we got closer. What structure lay below it? Could it support all that? I had arrived at a funeral. Expensive four-wheel-drive cars clogged the large parki


One of the hardest things to embrace and accept in Kenya is that the public education system that a majority of us have gone through is a failure in its entirety and no matter how many patches we apply, or clutches we give it to stagger on, it still is a failure. Typical Classroom in Kenya Don’t get me wrong it worked fine in another century and a different generation, but its usefulness ended a long time ago and just because factories are producing typewriters it doesn't mean every person has to learn how to use one. Let me clarify that statement, the problem with the public education system is that it is predicated on mechanical mass production where people go through a moving conveyor belt called the education system. They are grouped by age and expected to go through higher and higher levels of indoctrination so that at the end of the production line, they conform to a specific ‘quality’ assurance criteria that renders them ready to join other similarly standa

The Key Heist

We all had those days, weeks, and months when something snapped, and we went a bit crazy. This is one such story I kept in the recess of my mind. I was barely ten years old.   "The phone is really nice and shiny," I said, reaching up. It was placed on a high cupboard, in a corner right outside my parent's room. It was kept there so we could also receive calls since our parents were always away working.   Unlike the one before, a quaint rotary system, this one was white and had buttons. It looked so light caged and padlocked in a metal contraption that held it down, hiding the buttons.   Big Sis was standing on a chair beside me engrossed. Her focus was on the manacles holding the phone buttons out of access. With no social media back then, and with little interest in television, Big Sis was looking at her only source of entertainment. The brightest girl in Laikipia District, based on her last award, was stumped. My eyes moved from her to the phone and wondered wha